The rivers surface looked like it was being pelted by an early summer thunderstorm; but there wasn’t a cloud in sight. A mayfly hatch was underway, and there were literally hundreds of arctic grayling surfacing on the section of river in front of me. A member of the salmon family, there are six grayling species in the northern hemisphere, but the arctic grayling, ( Thymallus Arcticus, ) is the only grayling species found in North America. During the summer months arctic grayling feed voraciously, and although they have been known to eat small fish and even small rodents, their primary diet consists of drifting insects. Because of their diet, fly fishing for arctic grayling is extremely productive.
I knew I was in for something special as I rigged up my flyrod. It’s hard to imagine a fish more suited to flyfishing than arctic grayling. They have a gluttonous appetite for dry flies, routinely break water, and pound for pound, their fighting ability is second to none.
Gregarious by nature, it’s not uncommon to catch multiple fish at one location. The fact that they are easily one of the most beautiful freshwater species, and are found in some of the wildest regions on the planet, is an added bonus. Watching a big arctic grayling dancing across a clear mountain stream is about as good as fishing gets.
The small river I was fishing runs through the southeastern corner of the Yukon Territory. This vast expanse of road-less wilderness, is home to some of the best arctic grayling fishing on the planet. Far removed from the famous Klondike goldfields that the Territory is known for, the southeast is, in my opinion, one of Canada’s best kept secrets when it comes to fishing. Flying over the area you will see countless streams, lakes, and rivers, that have virtually never been fished. Grayling require this type of habitat to flourish. Extremely sensitive to water quality, biologists consider the arctic grayling an indicator species. They thrive in gin clear, well oxygenated, cold water, and don’t do well in areas with a lot of heavy industry or erosion.
A beefy 16-inch fish took my fly the second it hit the water. I didn’t count the fish I caught that day, but it had to be over one hundred. The action was non-stop, with most of the fish in the 12-16-inch range. My dry flies were taking a beating. After lunch, I decided to move downstream into deeper water. While the smaller fish thrive in fast shallow water, the deeper holes where the current isn’t as strong will hold the largest fish.
Spring spawner’s, adult grayling will move to their summer feeding areas immediately after the spawn. This usually takes place by the middle of June. This migration can be as short as a few hundred meters or many kilometers. Water that might hold a lot of large grayling early in the season will hold only juveniles by mid-summer. Because of this, some knowledge of the area you plan to fish, and a basic understanding of arctic grayling biology, will make any outing more successful.
Arctic grayling wont spawn until they are at least four years old, and some biologists put the number closer to seven years. With a lifespan of over 30-years, it’s important to be able to identify the areas adults move to after the spawn. In most streams they simply move into the deeper holes. The juveniles will stay in the shallow water where the temperatures are more favorable to faster growth.
Fishing these deeper holes takes some finesse, especially when trees and brush line the banks. Mature arctic grayling will sit suspended right where the shallow water dumps into deep holes. Eddies are created wherever the depth changes abruptly in fast moving water. The majority of the fish will be suspended in a small band of water right on the leading edge of this eddy. The way I describe the water you want to fish when I’m guiding, is to imagine you’re walking downstream. The exact location where you would plunge into deep water, is the band of water where you want to present your fly.
Depending on the current, this can be easier said than done. Although it can be done from both below and above, most flyfishers find it easier to get a good drift from the side. Whenever possible I like to place clients next to the shoreline, just slightly above the eddy. Facing upstream, I instruct them to cast 45-dregrees across the current on the upstream side of the eddy. This limits the amount of mending needed, and your pattern will naturally drift right over the eddy. Even on larger rivers the band of productive water in these deep holes can be surprisingly small. Boulders, logs, or anything else that breaks the current will create eddies, and will often hold fish.
My feelings differ from a lot of northern lodges and guides that recommend their clients bring a 5/6-weight fly rod when arctic grayling are on the agenda. The idea behind this line of thinking is that a 5/6-weight rod will work for all of the species that are commonly found, and will likely be fished, on any trip involving arctic grayling. A 5/6-weight rod will work, but it isn’t the best choice. Fly fishers will almost always find the 5/6-wt rod a bit light for lake trout and northern pike, and too heavy for grayling. A 9-wt or even a 10-wt rod is ideal for the larger species, and a 4-wt rod is perfect for arctic grayling.
I prefer a rod in the 10-foot range. The longer rod loads with very little effort or movement. This makes roll casts much easier especially up against the tight cover that is so common in the southeast Yukon. A good natural drift is far more important than matching the hatch perfectly. The elk hair caddis is hands down one of the top dry fly patterns a flyfisher can use for these fish. Other great patterns include the bloody mosquito, royal coachman, black gnat, and the bumblebee. Hook sizes #8 through #14 work well.
Casting wet flies can also be an extremely effective method when arctic grayling are subsurface feeding. In these situations, my favorite technique is to fish right off the bottom. I like to use a strike indicator whenever I fish nymphs. They make it easier to detect strikes that I can’t see, but more importantly I can use them to control the depth I want to fish. To properly set up an indicator all you need is a rough idea of the water depth. Place the indicator above the fly 1-1/2 times the water depth. The closed cell foam indicators that fold in half over the line are quick and easy to install and adjust. Depending on the pattern you are using, a split shot might be required to get your nymphs down quickly, especially in extremely strong currents.
If a ravenous appetite for both wet and dry flies, a strong fighting ability, and unequalled beauty, are qualities that appeal to you, the arctic grayling just might be your dream fish.